'Seeing Silicon Valley' creators on the tech hub's growing inequalities

Photographer Mary Beth Meehan and Stanford University Professor Fred Turner sat down with Yahoo Finance's Akiko Fujita to discuss their book, "Seeing Silicon Valley: Life Inside a Fraying America"

Video Transcript


ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Welcome back to "A Time for Change." When you think of Silicon Valley, you probably think of big tech, big money, and people like Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. But take a look at these images from a powerful new book called "Seeing Silicon Valley-- Life Inside a Fraying America." The book is the work of Stanford University professor Fred Turner and photographer Mary Beth Meehan. They collected stories and images of people living in the shadows of Silicon Valley. It's been out just a few months, and already it's in its second printing.

Yahoo Finance's Akiko Fujita sat down recently with Turner and Meehan about what drew them to document life in Silicon Valley and what they hope their book will reveal to the rest of us.

FRED TURNER: Five years ago, I was here in the Valley, and I had been writing for a long time as an academic about Valley technology, Valley mythology. And the story about the Valley that I saw in my work all the time was one of heroic entrepreneurs, mostly young, brilliant, white men like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

And yet I'd been living in the Valley for almost 20 years, and I'd seen that the Valley itself depended on a whole array of people-- working-class folks, cooks, cleaners, guards, as well as just midrange engineers, midrange coders. And they came in all colors, all social classes, and there was also stark inequality in the Valley.

And so I wanted to kind of capture that. I wanted to capture the difference between the mythology of the Valley as I was reading about it and the place where I actually lived.

AKIKO FUJITA: So, Mary Beth, you take the assignment. You have the conversation. You go out and live in an Airbnb to kick off the project. What did you see? Talk to me about some of the stories that you heard.

MARY BETH MEEHAN: Well, it was so interesting, Akiko. It was startling to speak with people and get to know the place and realize how much stress people were under there, how much tension there was, and that basically the wealth that's being created by the corporations that are in Silicon Valley is not making life easier for the majority of people there.

And so, you know, when I meet Cristobal, who is a US Army veteran-- he's working full time at Facebook through a contractor as a security guard, and he agrees to have his portrait made. And he gives me an address, and I show up at the house, and I realize he's not living in the house. He takes me around to the back to a shed with no running water or electricity, and I realize this is where he's living because this is where he can afford to live. So people who are really facing housing insecurity, these are people who are working full time and who are associated with these huge corporations that could be making more of a difference in their lives.

AKIKO FUJITA: And, Fred, you talked about the disconnect that you're seeing between sort of these headlines of the entrepreneurs who came out of their garages and made it big. Talk to me about what else you learned in the process of publishing this book.

FRED TURNER: Right. Right. Well, I think the first thing that Mary Beth found in her work that was very powerful was a kind of underlying level of anxiety across all the levels of workers in the Valley. That was something that surprised me. I thought too going into it that if you were a pretty well-paid engineer at Google, you'd be fine. You'd be set. And, in fact, there's quite a lot of anxiety there.

But a couple of other facts really hit me, and they're mostly around the level of inequality. For instance, you know, in recent years, as much as 30% of families here in Silicon Valley are actually not making enough money to live without government assistance. Now, that's in a place where we have 74 billionaires with a B. We produce, on average, 19,000 new patents every year. We're producing a concentration of wealth that hasn't been seen since the Medici era in Italy, and yet we have people who are food insecure. During the pandemic, more than 40% of the families here in Silicon Valley have not had a secure daily set of meals. That's incredible.

Last fact-- this is also-- Santa Clara County, one of the two counties that make up the core of the Valley. Santa Clara County has the highest concentration of hyperpolluted Superfund sites of any county in America. The myth says that technology is bodyless, timeless. It just travels through space. But the facts are pretty different on the ground.

AKIKO FUJITA: And when you point to the impact and the inequality that we've seen emerge as a result of the success of some of these companies, how much of that do you think, Fred, is specific to Silicon Valley? We've seen other tech hubs like a Seattle, even an LA, you know, highlight the issue of homelessness and growing inequality. What you're seeing there, is that unique?

FRED TURNER: No, it's not unique, and I think that's actually critical to understand. Mary Beth and I both came to think of Silicon Valley as what the Puritan minister John Winthrop called a city on a hill. It's an emblem of the kind of America that we're becoming.

And let me make another point. Some people say that inequality is the natural result of high-tech industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing that requires a company to give most of its profits to its managers. You know, back in the '50s, we had companies that we're giving much more-- a much higher percentage of their earnings to their workers.

The point of doing business is to build a better society. It's not simply to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. And so the problem here isn't just tech. It's the concentration of wealth, and we are a signal, a flag for the kind of country that we're becoming in many other places as well.

AKIKO FUJITA: Mary Beth, I'm curious to get your thoughts on that. You've documented communities, not just Silicon Valley but other parts of America as well. What you found in the process of publishing this-- what stood out to you? What surprised you? And how much of that do you think can be applied to some other communities?

MARY BETH MEEHAN: Well, one of the reasons why we're so excited to be speaking with you, Akiko, and your audience is that, you know, this really feels like a problem of the American economy in many ways. And we-- you know, I grew up in an industrial city in Massachusetts, and I didn't know that those roots would be important in informing my experience in Silicon Valley. But while I was there, I could think about how, in the '50s and '60s, working-class people could build wealth and bring their families into the middle class. And the equivalent of my families and the people that I loved growing up working in Silicon Valley now are barely making it.

So it's really a one-to-one relationship to see the equivalent worker in Silicon Valley who can't afford basic necessities, who is traveling all the time for work, whose kids are struggling. And so that is sort of something invisible about the economic system in the United States that's changed that we're hoping our book can highlight and can put in the hands of the people who can actually change it.

AKIKO FUJITA: It feels like where we stand right now, there's been a real realization over the last 18 months or so as a result of the pandemic about the big divide.

FRED TURNER: I absolutely think the awareness of the inequality has been increased thanks to the pandemic.

I think there's another feature we have to keep an eye on too. Sometimes if you're at the top of a scale, it looks like if you just, you know, insulate yourself a little bit from the chaos around you, it will never reach you, you know, that you can wall up inside your house and you'll be safe and sound. But the truth is that the happiness and success of lives at the top depends on the quality of the lives all the way through the society.

It's a lot like the environmental crisis that we're seeing. You can't live in Manhattan and escape the floods just by living on a higher floor. It takes out the whole building, and that's the way society works too. If we don't build businesses that tend to the society as a whole, even the people who build the businesses will live far less happy lives, and I think they know that.

AKIKO FUJITA: Mary Beth, when you think about all of the people that you've met, the lives that you've profiled, what's the one image that is going to stick in your head?

MARY BETH MEEHAN: Well, I will never forget meeting Cristobal in the shed, as I told you. I think about Mark whose mother worked in the technology industry in the '70s who was working with lead, raw lead, and whose son was born with severe birth defects, which is not uncommon in Silicon Valley for women who had worked in the industries back in the '70s and the '80s.

And I think about how Silicon Valley now is the place where all of those-- where all of our electronics are designed, but the manufacturing of them have been offshored to Asia where environmental protections are not in place to protect other mothers like Mark's mother. And so we just-- there's so much that we don't see about what's happening in Silicon Valley that is detrimental to our health and that we really should try to open our eyes and see.

AKIKO FUJITA: What about you, Fred? What's the one image--


AKIKO FUJITA: --the one story that still tugs at you?

FRED TURNER: For me, the person who still tugs at me most is the woman on the cover, Teresa. Teresa works in a taco truck. She comes originally from Mexico, and she's incredibly hardworking.

And what I love best about her story and the picture that Mary Beth made of her is the fact that all of her is there. All of her body is there. She feeds people. She leads a material, physical life, and that strikes me as exactly the kind of thing that we're having trouble seeing in a Zoom-driven era. We're having trouble seeing the people who inhabit in-- who inhabit the systems that we're building. And Teresa is one of those people, and Mary Beth has brought out the beauty of her as a person. And that beauty is one of the things that I think is going to allow us to break away from the mythology and start to build a society that includes everyone.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: A really insightful conversation there with Yahoo Finance's Akiko Fujita talking with Stanford professor Fred Turner and photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Again, their book is called "Silicon Valley-- Life Inside a Fraying America."